I see that voters in Denver have rejected a ballot measure that would allow homeless the right to eat, sit, sleep, and camp out in public parks and highway rights-of-way, and on public sidewalks. Voters rejected it by a vote of 81% to 19% — four to one! — despite its warm endorsement by the local Democratic Party, the local American Civil Liberties Union, and a group called Occupy Denver.
I guess the voters of Denver didn’t want to be occupied. I don’t want to be, either, except that I live in Seattle, a city that already is. Here the homeless eat, sit, sleep, pitch tents, park their ramshackle motor homes, steal grocery carts, and chuck garbage in a lot of places. At the park near my house the cops do clear them out from time to time, but they come back. Around some freeway interchanges near downtown their trash-strewn encampments seem to be permanent.
The problem is not that he abuses drugs; some of the people in the houses abuse drugs.
Denver’s ballot measure was called the “Right to Survive Initiative.” This “right” included “the right to rest in a non-obstructive manner in public spaces,” “the right to shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces,” and “the right to occupy one’s own legally parked motor vehicle.” All winter, as I went for daily walks, I passed several of these vehicles in the city park. They were in the park for months, conveniently located near the covered cooking areas and the restrooms.
I resent this. Not so much because it is dangerous to the public health. That is the reason politicians cite, but it’s a political reason, a lawyer’s reason. Some of the encampments may be a health hazard, but some of them near public restrooms and garbage cans may not be. Health is an issue, but it’s not the central one. The park near my home is an urban amenity. It is in an area of some of the most expensive real estate in the Pacific Northwest — real estate that is far too expensive to be used as a campground of any sort. Campgrounds belong on cheap land away from the city, in the desert or out in the woods. The park I’m thinking of is surrounded by million-dollar houses. Some of the owners of those houses are paying more than $10,000 a year property tax, to say nothing of their house payments. They need to work, full-time, at intelligent and stressful jobs to be able to live in such houses, and they treat their houses and yards with care. And right across the street, or a few blocks away, some suntanned, unshaven vagrant waddles up with a stolen Safeway cart overflowing with bags, pitches a tent that the welfare people gave him, and sets up housekeeping while paying nothing. The problem is not that he abuses drugs; some of the people in the houses abuse drugs. It’s not that he pees in the bushes. Dogs pee in the bushes. It’s that he’s there at all.
For years there have been signs in the windows of businesses saying, “Now Hiring.” There is a sign like that within a block of my house. Work is available.
I can hear the apologists: “You’re just a bourgeois.” Damn right. And no apologies. But I do not limit my solicitude to the owners of million-dollar houses. My neighborhood has townhouses, condos, apartments, and old houses cut into rental units. There are garages converted to mother-in-law units, some of them legal and some not, and there are houses shared by single tenants. I know of an old junk shop with a room in the back. I don’t object to any of those. I draw the line at sleeping in doorways and camping in the park.
Again, I can hear the apologists: “They’re homeless. Where are they supposed to go?” Hey, that’s their problem. It’s a problem that every adult has, and until recently everyone has been able to solve. It’s not that difficult. You ask, where can they go? The social welfare people regularly visit the homeless and offer them space in shelters — and they refuse to live there. And that’s fine: they can go to work. The unemployment rate in America is the lowest in 50 years, and it’s lower in Seattle than almost anywhere else. For years there have been signs in the windows of businesses saying, “Now Hiring.” There is a sign like that within a block of my house. Work is available. A few miles from my house is a Home Depot where a line of Mexicans stand every day, waiting for work for strangers who drive up in cars. These Mexicans are poorly dressed. Probably they speak only a little English, if any. Maybe many of them are illegal. But they are willing to work.